Here is a little information on our upcoming show this Sunday: Dogs in the Dungeon.
It focuses around a man keeping 11 dogs inside a heep of rubble with no running water on the property and never being let out for exercise, fresh air or to defecate. Here is a timeline of the events:
In 2010, the Wythe County Humane Society (WCHS) was made aware of multiple dogs living in a homemade kennel, dubbed, “The Dungeon,” on the property of Mr. Mike Thomas of Max Meadows, VA. The dogs were smothered in fleas and unable to escape their own feces and urine. The WCHS did only what they were given permission to do by Mr. Thomas, bathe the dogs. They later filed a complaint with Chief Animal Control Officer Arlan Dunford. For the last four years Officer Dunford claims to have conducted monthly inspections, finding no violations.
Also in 2010, Mr. Thomas was cited for having unlicensed dogs. As a result, a veterinarian was called to the property of Mr. Thomas to vaccinate his dogs. Recognizing the immediate need for intervention, the veterinarian reported the situation to WCHS who was later accompanied to the property by Animal Control Officer Dunford. A WCHS member recalls:
“Upon arriving on the property, it was discovered that there was no running water which was necessary for thorough bathing and for treating the premises. The Humane Society members did the best they could with water that was carried over from the neighbors. After a point the neighbors stopped allowing water to be carried over and our members were forced to continue to bathe the dogs in bloody bath water! The saddest part was that as soon as the dog’s feet hit the ground cleaned, they became flea infested all over again.”
Afraid of Mike Thomas, WCHS members asked Officer Dunford to stay with them. According to a volunteer, Officer Dunford replied, “I got your group in to help the dogs, isn’t that enough?” One volunteer recalls that he did not seemed concerned for their safety. Another volunteer stated that Mr. Thomas threatened to kill one of the WCHS members, as she had previously been to the property and removed one of the dogs (with permission). Regretfully the dog later died of flea anemia.
Citizens, neighbors, and family members continued to make complaints to Animal Control, the Board of Supervisors (who oversees Animal Control), and the Sheriff’s Department, to no avail. Due to Mr. Thomas’s violent past and current threatening behavior, citizens were afraid to file official warrants. Mr. Thomas’s own cousin, John Thomas, stated in the October 2011 board meeting, “Many of the citizens are terrified of Michael Thomas and the possible retaliation.” Mr. John Thomas goes on to tell sources more disturbing information about his cousin Mike. According to John Thomas, Mike is severely brain damaged and has lashed out multiple time by shooting his brother,shooting a neighborhood child thinking the child had run over one of his dogs, pulling a knife on another neighbor. John has also reported that Mike has had multiple dogs for over 20 years, 22 in total at one time. John,who lives only 80 yards from Mike, reports hearing his cousin screaming at the dogs and hearing the dogs yelp on a daily basis though he admits that he has never actually seen Mike abuse the dogs. Most disturbingly, John recalls finding dead dogs with bullet wounds behind his house.
Non-animal related charges against Mike Thomas include: Attempted Malicious Wounding, Assault, Resisting Arrest, Trespass, and Assault and Battery. To date, the only animal related violations Mr. Thomas has been charged with is having unlicensed dogs. In addition, Mr. Thomas does not own the property, he is squatting. According to the property owners, their hands are tied as the eviction is currently in litigation. As per Wythe County Sheriff Doug King, “If the original owner (deceased) had listened to me about 13 years ago, I doubt if any of this would be happening. I tried to get her to obtain civil papers back then on Mr. Thomas to get rid of him, but to no avail.”
After investigating the squatting and the no-water, no-electricity and no-sewer allegations, it was found that Mr. Thomas is fighting the eviction under adverse possession laws. According the Virginia Department of Health, citizens are not required to have water or electrical services but are required to have approved waste disposal systems. The Wythe County Health Department, seemed surprised that Mr. Thomas did not have sewer services, but, after some digging, there was a complaint filed October 3, 2011 for “no outhouse, no bathroom, using woods to dispose of human waste, no water, rats.” According to the complaint E. Ritterbusch, supervisor and C. Sink, EHS visited property. After a ‘plain view’ inspection, rats were observed and human waste was not found on the ground. No follow up or site inspection was done, just a plain view inspection. According to Ritterbusch and Sink, no violations were found despite the fact that they never ascertained whether there was a septic system. This seems to be a familiar response to complaints filed against Mr. Thomas: “No violations.”
After questioning the condition of the dogs, former Wythe County spokesperson Jenna Coleman said on July 20, 2012, that Animal Control had found no violations and that all dogs were licensed. However, on July 23,2012, Animal Control conducted another investigation and provided a written investigation report and current photos. In this report, Animal Control Officer Danny Blanchett stated that the “kennel” was cleaned on a daily basis, dogs were clean and healthy, there was proper ventilation, there were no flea problem,and again, no violations were found.
In contradiction to the above findings by Officer Blanchett, photos provided by Ms. Coleman clearly showed food lying on the kennel floor. This alone was a violation of VA § 3.2-6500 that addresses proper feeding. A bleach bottle can be seen and with the lack of running water, concerns of proper cleaning could be a violation of §3.2-6500. Skin conditions were seen on at least three of the dogs. Dr. Jared Morgan, a Pulaski County veterinarian, reviewed these photos and agreed that some dogs did need medical treatment which is a violation of VA § 3.2-6503 that calls for veterinary care. Fleas were also seen on the dogs as well. Neighbors had reported seeing the doors and windows, that according to Officer Blanchett provided proper ventilation, closed prior to and since the July 23 investigation was conducted.
Also in contradiction to Officer Blanchett’s report was a statement made by Ms. Jenna Coleman to WSLS 10on August 2, 2012, “The dogs did see a vet earlier this week and three of them were flea-dipped.” If Officer Blanchett reported that all dogs were healthy, why did they need to be seen by a vet a week later? If Officer Blanchett reported that there were no flea problems, why did three need to be dipped a week later? How is it that three dogs living in a very small space have fleas but the others do not? Is Officer Blanchett qualified to provide an assessment as to the health of the dogs? Did Officer Blanchett overlook, ignore, or lie about the skin lesions clearly seen on the new photos of the dogs? These questions were posed to Ms. Coleman,with no response.
Neighbors have reported that shortly after the July 23 investigation, Mr. Thomas erected a new pen for the dogs and the county kept “plugging” this new development when contacted about the dogs . Ms. Coleman stated, “Mr. Thomas has constructed outdoor pens in which the dogs have access to sunlight and exercise.” But citizens disagreed:
“The reply from the county spokesperson isn’t accurate by any definition of the word. Sure there’s a new kennel on the property, but the dogs are never in it. I’m on that road multiple times a week at various times of day and have never seen a dog in the new structure. They aren’t ‘playing’ in it, they aren’t exercising in it – the dogs are still under lock and key in the original ‘dungeon.’ The response appears to be a deliberate attempt at either – falsehood, to outright mislead the public into thinking there is no problem when in fact there is; or -stalling, in hopes that the problem either goes away, corrects itself, or is forgotten.”
Sources reported in July,2012 that Commonwealth’s Attorney Maybe would conduct an independent investigation. That investigation has yet to take place and all inquires to the Commonwealth’s Attorney office have gone unanswered.
Also in 2012, Laura Donohue of the Humane Society of the United States was given permission to visit the property with her own veterinarian to assess the condition of the dogs. A day prior to her visit, sources in Wythe County recall seeing county vehicles and workers cleaning up some of the trash and debris on Mr. Thomas’ property. Ms.Donohue’s permissions were later revoked. In an email to county leaders she wrote, “I and the community would feel more assured if an independent veterinarian evaluated the living conditions as well as the animals.”
From the summer of 2012 to February 2014, the case laid largely dormant and the dogs continued to suffer until a group of ladies called “The Cougars” reignited the story and established a Facebook page. Members of the page have persistently yet respectfully sent thousands of emails and have made thousands of phone calls to Wythe County and Virginia Officials. On February 5, 2014, Orlando Salinas of local news station WDBJ7 spoke to Wythe County Public Information Officer Jeremy T.K. Farley, who stated that they had received thousands emails from all over the world.
On February 6, 2014 Tamira Ci Thayne of the Smithfield, VA based animal rescue organization Dogs Deserve Better, was allowed on the property, spoke to Mr. Thomas, and took a controversial video showing that the living conditions for the dogs had not changed. In the video Mr. Thomas admitted to one of the dogs dying due to flea-related-complications. He also admits that he keeps the dogs in the box in fear of someone stealing them. In addition, he told Mrs. Thayne and others who have visited the property that he would kill anyone that tried to take his dogs. Mrs. Thayne has confirmed with neighbors that dogs have remained in the box, in total darkness 24/7 for at least five years. On February 10, 2014, Mrs. Thayne met with Wythe County Assistant Administrator Stephen Bear who continued to insist that no laws were being broken. She reported that “animal control never even bothered to show up” for the meeting.
In a February 15, 2014 interview, veterinarian Larry Taylor with Wythe County Animal Clinic reported that he visited and treated the dogs in September, 2013. He noted that the dogs were healthy and the kennel was clean also stating, ” If you are looking for evidence against him, I’m not going to give it.” Wythe County Animal Clinic’s credibility was brought into question however when multiple violations against the clinic were discovered. These violations span a decade, many of them repeat offenses, that range from unsanitary and unsafe conditions to missing euthanasia records to unsafe practices that cost some animals prolonged and unnecessary suffering.
The Cougars have repeated the battle cry, “We WILL free the dogs” and they may very well succeed. New York Attorney Matt Albert with The Lexus Project – Legal Defense For All Breeds jumped on the case believing they have a viable lawsuit against Wythe County Animal Control. The Lexus Project intends on filing charges against Wythe Animal Control but are seeking legal representation from an attorney licensed in Virginia. Mr. Albert and attorney Richard Rosenthal, also from the Lexus Project, were recently successful in having the Sprakers,NY Flat Creek Border Collie breeding operation dogs seized, after filing a lawsuit against the New York State Police, for failing to enforce the law. In recent developments, Mr. Albert announced on February 21, 2014 that the Human Society of the United States will be working with him on the legal proceedings.
Due to “serious” violations cited by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in 2011 against Wythe County Animal Control and Pound, recent concerns have grown about where the “dogs in the box” would go if they are seized. The Cougars, The Lexus Project, and Dogs Deserve Better, and the HSUS have worked to ensure that a reputable animal rescue group will be available if/when the dogs are seized.
So where does it stand now? The original “Cougars” has divided into two groups. One that supports the Lexus Project efforts to force local officials to take action, while the other supports Robert Misseri of Guardians of Rescue to befriend Mr. Thomas and build a modern shelter on the property, offer assistance to Mr. Thomas, and allow him to keep all the dogs without any criminal prosecution “for the sake of the dogs”. Mr. Misseri earned a national reputation for basically doing the same thing with the Olympic Animal Sanctuary is Washington when local officials refused to press charges. He established a relationship with the offender and convinced him to voluntarily surrender most of the dogs,
(not all). The Facebook page supporting the efforts of the Lexus Project is Free the Dog in the Box. The page supporting the idea of making Mr. Thomas their friend and sticking behind Guardians of Rescue is Help Save the Dogs Still in the Box.
Here is the problem in this case. By bringing a shelter up to code, under the existing Virginia laws, Mr. Thomas is no longer breaking any laws, and there is no basis for the Lexus law suit. There is also no guarantee that after the new shelter is built that Mr. Thomas would use it, and Guardians of Rescue has no legal authority to force Mr. Thomas to comply. Mr. Thomas is also not the owner of the property on which he resides, and the owner has stated he does not want any structure built on it. Mr. Misseri’s answer to this problem is to hire a lawyer to defend the abuser Mr. Thomas against the landowner.
To read more about this go here.